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U.S. buys 21 MiGs from Moldova to keep aircraft from Iran hands

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In an unprecedented shopping opportunity in the world's arms bazaar, the United States has purchased 21 MiG-29s from the former Soviet republic of Moldova to keep them out of Iranian hands.

"We are very happy to have them, instead of the Iranians," Defense Secretary William Cohen said Tuesday at a Pentagon briefing, where he made the disclosure.Cohen said Iran, among other nations, was interested in the aircraft. Several types of those purchased, known as MiG-29C models, are able to deliver nuclear weapons, one of the major reasons they were on the Iranians' shopping list, Cohen said.

It is the first time the United States has acquired the MiG-29C models, he said.

"Iran is seeking to develop weapons of mass destruction. They have programs seeking to develop chemical, biological and have been seeking to develop a nuclear capability, so . . . it seems to me it's in our overall interest to see to it that it doesn't fall into their hands if we can prevent it," Cohen said.

The defense secretary said the Iranians had inquired about purchasing the aircraft from Moldova, a former member of the Soviet Union nestled between Ukraine and Romania. Since the evaporation of the Soviet Union, many cash-strapped former members of the Warsaw Pact have been offering their weaponry for sale.

The planes were taken apart and flown by C-17 transports to the Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio over the past two weeks, the secretary said.

He declined to cite the cost of the purchase, saying that was part of the agreement. He praised Moldovan officials for their "visionary effort," and noted that the country would be recognized for its act with excess U.S. military supplies and items for humanitarian assistance programs.

Pressed, Cohen said the cost of the aircraft was "quite reasonable."

He also lauded Congress for assisting the effort, which is sponsored under a program begun by Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., and former Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., which is geared towards helping reduce the threat from the Warsaw Pact's nuclear arsenal.

U.S. military analysts study the aircraft to better understand their capabilities and the threat they might pose to U.S. pilots, given that such warplanes are still being sold by the Russians, Cohen said.

Many such aircraft are flown by U.S. pilots when they act as the "OPFOR," or opposition forces, in military war games used to test the Americans' capabilities.

Other officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the package includes 14 of the MiG-29Cs; six MiG-29As and one MiG-29B.

Other military experts in the Pentagon who spoke on condition of anonymity said these are not the first MiGs to enter the U.S. military's inventory of weapons that are used by potential foes.

Other Soviet-made warplanes, tanks and even SCUD missiles have been quietly acquired and studied by military officers over the years.

Cohen said the Russians were informed in advance of the U.S. purchase of the weapons.